Dallas — A clarinet and piano recital seems like a tough sell for Chamber Music International. Piano, sure. Violin and piano, sure. Cello and piano? Maybe. But clarinet? Hardly ever. The recital on April 23, though, featured clarinetist Jon Manasse and 1997 Cliburn gold medalist Jon Nakamatsu on piano. This was a clarinet recital with a difference. Manasse, perhaps realizing that he needs to win his audience over a bit to the notion of two hours of clarinet music, offered funny and charming remarks in between pieces—and sometimes in between movements—while Nakamatsu sat silently at the piano, nodding, a sort of Teller to Manasse’s Penn Jillette.
Extraordinarily skillful programming also made this recital a romp—leading off with André Messager’s Solo de Concours for clarinet and piano was a wise opening gambit, since this piece is a virtuosic whirlwind for the clarinet. Manasse thus established his technical prowess early, before returning to the stage for Brahms’s Sonata in E-flat major for Viola and Piano. Whoops. I mean clarinet and piano.
(Sidebar: Brahms wrote two sonatas for clarinet and piano, No. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in E flat major, near the end of his life. He then transcribed the two sonatas for viola and piano. Both violists and clarinetists, neither of whom have overmuch solo repertoire, often claim these pieces as “theirs.” I’m a string player, and I didn’t learn there even WAS a clarinet version of these sonatas until years after I first heard them on viola. Nonetheless, Brahms did write the sonatas for clarinet first, so clarinetists probably do have the better claim.)
The Brahms sonata was an opportunity for both Manasse and Nakamatsu to show off their musicality, and show it off they did. Manasse has a gorgeous tone and astonishing breath control, while Nakamatsu handled the considerable pyrotechnics of the third movement with aplomb. Both these musicians are skilled collaborators who balance each other beautifully.
Before intermission, Nakamatsu took a solo turn on Chopin’s Andante spinato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22. The Chopin provided a worthy display of the range of his technique and musicality, from sparkly, glittery runs to stentorian, martial chords. Nakamatsu received a standing ovation for this performance, with lots of shouts of “bravo” from the substantial crowd.
The post-intermission material was a mix of traditional art music with other genres such as jazz and ragtime. The former was represented by Claude Debussy’s Première Rhapsody for clarinet and piano. Alas, I have no report on this piece, since the family two rows in front of me ate a bag of potato chips during the piece, rattling the bag as they passed it to and fro and crunching loudly. They were shouted down by another audience member during the applause (sir, two rudenesses do not a politeness make), and chastised by an usher. I like Dallas City Performance Hall’s practice of allowing drinks in the hall during performances. It’s quite civilized. However, snacks and for that matter drinks with ice cubes in them simply make too much noise to be acceptable.
The rest of the program, with distraction eliminated, was a joyous exploration of genres. Paquito D’Rivera’s “Lecuonerías” from The Cape Cod Files is dedicated to the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. Manasse’s exploration of Latin and jazz styles is perhaps less free than that of some straight-up jazzers, but his sophisticated playing more than makes up for any slight lack of spontaneity.
The last two pieces on the program were composed for Manasse and Nakamatsu. Gordon Goodwin, who primarily composes for film and television, created his Four Views for Clarinet and Piano in 2012. This tonal, readily listenable set of four short pieces could itself readily fit on a soundtrack. Indeed, Manasse remarked that the composer encouraged us to create our own vignettes to match the music.
Finally, John Novacek’s “Full Stride Ahead” from Four Rags for Two Jons was as fun as the title suggests—Nakamatsu’s impressive mastery of stride piano combined with Manasse’s impressive technical facility and their mutual love of fun created pure delight, a delight only outstripped by their encore, a Gershwin melody that began with “I Got Rhythm” and moved around the Gershwin songbook, settling briefly on Rhapsody in Blue—but only the famous opening clarinet glissando and the ending piano chords. These two know how to turn a clarinet recital into two hours of happiness (except for those people with the chips. Sorry, Debussy.)